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Support growing for Fukuda in PM race

Momentum built in Japan's ruling party to back lawmaker Yasuo Fukuda to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

world Updated: Sep 14, 2007 12:23 IST

Momentum built in Japan's ruling party on Friday to back 71-year-old lawmaker Yasuo Fukuda, an advocate of warm ties with Asian neighbors, to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after his shock resignation.

"I think this is an emergency situation. I don't know how it will develop ... but I want to seek your support," Fukuda, the son of a prime minister, told colleagues amid reports that other party factions would also back him in the race for Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president, and hence prime minister.

Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, 63, was the first to say he would run in the party poll, set for September 23, but on Friday he withdrew and backed Fukuda, a former chief cabinet secretary.

Analysts said Fukuda now looked poised to win a battle with LDP Secretary-General Taro Aso, 66, a close ally of Abe who shares many of the outgoing leader's hawkish security views.

Abe's year in power was marred by scandals involving cabinet members and a humiliating election defeat in July that cost his ruling coalition its majority in parliament's upper house.

But his shock decision to step down stirred worries of delay in decisions on vital policies such as tax and fiscal reform.

Aso and Fukuda differ more on foreign policy than economics, with Fukuda favoring a less US-centered stance and friendly ties with China over containment of Japan's giant rival.

Whoever succeeds Abe faces a potential deadlock in a divided parliament, including a showdown over a Japanese naval mission in support of US-led military operations in Afghanistan.


Enabling legislation for the mission expires on November 1 and opposition parties are against extending it.

"This next (LDP) leader will be a sort of caretaker until the next general election," said Hidenori Suezawa, chief government bond strategist at Daiwa SMBC. "He won't put forth drastic policies, and they wouldn't pass anyway."

PARTY DYNAMICS, PUBLIC PERCEPTION

The party poll will be held on September 23 and the victor is assured of the premiership by virtue of the ruling camp's grip on parliament's lower house, which picks the prime minister.

Despite Fukuda's growing lead, some cautioned that the outcome was still uncertain.

"I think the LDP is basically panicking and trying to find someone acceptable to everyone, but there is a world outside the LDP," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

Aso, himself the grandson of a prime minister, is known as a fan of "manga" comic books and for his ability to work a crowd.

But his closeness to Abe and his record for gaffes have raised doubts about his suitability for the post.

A former foreign minister who -- unlike Fukuda -- shares much of Abe's conservative agenda aimed at reviving traditional values and patriotism, had been seen as frontrunner to succeed Abe.

As the tide shifted in favor of Fukuda, some Aso supporters questioned whether a decision based on factional dynamics would go down well with the Japanese public.

"Is it really OK to decide based on faction numbers?" said LDP lawmaker Kunio Hatoyama, speaking to reporters.

Some analysts questioned whether Fukuda could help the party avoid a bashing in the next lower house election.

"Abe lost the public's trust and damaged the prime minister's authority," said Yasunori Sone, a professor at Keio University.

"The question now is how to rebuild that, but it's questionable how well the LDP understands this."

No lower house election is required until 2009 but a deadlock in parliament could prompt one sooner.

Fukuda played a pivotal role as top government spokesman early in the reign of Abe's predecessor, the maverick Junichiro Koizumi, expanding his brief into diplomacy and security and earning the nickname "shadow foreign minister".

He resigned in 2004 after admitting he had skipped some payments into the public pension scheme, though some analysts attributed his abrupt departure to growing friction with Koizumi.

(Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds, Chisa Fujioka and Yuzo Saeki)